Coming Back to Life: Feminism and The Winter’s Tale

As young Mamillius asks his mother to tell him a story, he says that “a sad tale’s best for winter,” but Groundling Theatre Company’s The Winter’s Tale moves through every mood of the play with elegance and thoughtfulness. But within each moment creeps the menacing and destructive power of patriarchy. In the dark Winter Garden Theatre, I sat onstage amidst the other audience members examining the small set and starring into the dark abyss of empty seats in front of us. The show began with the house in the dark and the pseudo-theatre-in-the-round style staging took place onstage creating an intimate environment. Graham Abbey situates the audience within the story by placing us underneath the proscenium arch.

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Courtesy of Groundling Theatre Company

The Winter’s Tale is self-aware of its storytelling as it reaches across years and locations, includes magical statues and fearsome bears, and even has a character named Time who gently guides the story. The play starts with King Leontes who believes his wife, Queen Hermione, to be unfaithful and wrongfully punishes the innocent queen. She dies, heartbroken, after being accused of a crime she did not commit and the loss of her young son who could not bear to see her on trial. Leontes even gives a death sentences to his new baby daughter Perdita by exiling her. Perdita is adopted by a shepherd and grows up to fall in love with the prince of Bohemia. The prince’s father disapproves of them marrying so they run away to Sicily (unaware that Perdita is Princess of Sicily). All this culminates in the final scene where a statue of Hermione is unveiled and magically returns back to life. Perdita’s true identity is revealed and the mother and daughter reunite. Hermione is finally redeemed.

The production compartmentalizes The Winter’s Tale and shifts between moods and experiences. The play is a single narrative but Abbey’s design choices seek to articulate the emotion of the scenes and give each section a distinct feeling. The designs of these plot points or characters accommodates the scope of the story and creates a multitude of layers. Instead, I believe Abbey’s The Winter’s Tale works through the complexities of Shakespeare play, known for being difficult to stage, by breaking it up. The world ultimately feels larger as we move through different sections. The piece holding this expansive story together was Hermione. The emphasis is on Hermione (played by Michelle Giroux) and exemplifies love and patience, which unites us all and pierces through time and space.

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Courtesy of Groundling Theatre Company

The opening scene starts with the small platform dimly lit with the audience and darkness surrounding it. The world is contained. The set has a couple of empty wooden chairs and a screen. The character of Time (Geroge Meanwell) enters carrying a cello before taking his seat at the edge of the stage where he will remain for most of the show. By giving Time an instrument, Abbey shows the swirling passage of time as the cello carries the audience gently through each scene transition. Footsteps are gently heard approaching before Leontes (Tom McCamus) enters, takes his seat, and family videos begin to play on a screen. Abbey makes the audience mourn with Leontes as he watches the black-and-white images of his deceased wife and son playing. The video, which uses text from the play, was added by Abbey and a clever way of showing the bashing together of past and present. The longing for what has been lost is evident.

The scene melts away as furniture is carried off, the lighting is brought up more, and the space is opened up. Warm light seeps over the stage and we are in the past. Specifically, we are in Sicily and the home of Leontes and Hermione. Characters flood the stage playing a game with young Maximilius and the home is filled by a happy and loving family. Abbey is tempting us into seeing a simple, unflawed world. But then I notice the costumes. Women wear long gowns while the men are dressed in modern attire. Lucy Peacock plays Paulina and her red dress appears medieval while Leontes wears a contemporary suit. This sets the scene for what becomes the modern court drama and medieval witch hunt against Hermione. Two time periods colliding where women’s voices are silenced because of male accusation becomes evidently clear as Leontes becomes suspicious of Hermione’s fidelity to him. Abbey positions these two narratives of the modern and medieval beside each other as Hermione is accused and put on trial.

The next section transitions into a court room drama where Leontes is the jealous and accusatory tyrant who overpowers every scene and every person. Bohemia is cold, dark, and sinister. The Winter’s Tale is a timely production due to Leontes ill-treatment of Hermione. The distrust of women is not a theme unknown to other Shakespearean plays. The play is labelled as a problem play because it jumps around time, mashes together different genres, and features the misogynistic treatment of women. The subjugation of women due to overpowering male voices is not unknown to the women of today. The problems I mention are also what makes Abbey’s choice to do The Winter’s Tale particularly interesting today though. For many years, the difficulties associated with the play made it less popular within the canon to perform. However, exploring different time periods works because the misogyny within the play is not solved in the present. Abbey’s sinister kingdom of Leontes eventually transitions to the beautiful forest in Bohemia, but the discrimination and distrust of women follow Hermione and Perdita through the text. The binaries written into the play remain firm as much as Abbey tries to bend and break it by taking the audience through each changing mood of the characters. Setting up Leontes as regretfully watching home videos does not cleanse of him of his treatment of Hermione later. However difficult these binaries are to fight against, The Winter’s Tale is still relevant and raises important questions about the way women are treated and the strategies they use to overcome oppressive boundaries. Although, spoiler alert, I would not recommend becoming a statue for years to combat the patriarchy.  

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View of the Winter Garden Theatre

The abandonment of Perdita in the woods on her father’s order signifies the completion of the ruthless winter. The beautiful image of snow falling amongst blue lighting completes this chapter. After the abandonment of Perdita (played by Sarena Parmar) and after the iconic exit pursued by a bear, the entire tone of the play changes. Suddenly it becomes a comedy. It becomes about young love. To suit the play’s new genre, the lights in the Winter Garden Theatre are brought up and you lookout into the house which is decorated with vines and lanterns. This was a clever use of space by Abbey but he really cannot be credited for the creation of this stunning Edwardian theatre. The effect lifting the house lights up did have was opening up the story. I lookout into the woodsy theatre and think “am I in As You Like It? Is this actually A Midsummer Night’s Dream?” It was stunning. Normally we would be in the audience in the dark but instead the theatre is incorporated into the set design by Abbey. The costumes also change to become more relaxed and brighter. The Shepard and Clown who raise Perdita are dressed like goofy farmers while Perdita wears a flowing cream dress that floats as she dances around the stage. Perdita even wears flowers in her hair. I mean, come on. The play not only feels like a different story but it looks like it too.

The dissonance between the first and second half of Shakespeare’s play makes me wonder what ties this story together. But the answer becomes obvious: the women. In Peridita’s story, her romance must combat against her assumed social status as a commoner, which devalues her as a person and prevents her ability to marry. Perdita is also the sole POC in a leading role in this production which creates its own questions about what type of woman is valued and discriminated against in the world. It is unfortunate that when choosing to stage a problem play tackling women’s issues, Abbey does not choose to be more intersectional and most actors of colour were given minor roles. If Groundling seeks to be more political, then the responsibility is to produce work which considers diversity more. Perdita is also viewed as ‘deceptive’ like her mother because the prince’s identity is hidden before their relationship is exposed by his father. Even amongst the bright world of the forest created by Abbey with the beautiful theatre and the white costumes, the sexism toward women continues to weave its way into the story. The distrust of women remains rooted even in this section of the story, which reminds us that sexism is always present in this text.

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Photo by Michael Cooper

The play travels back to Sicily and the finale culminates in the reawakening of Hermione’s statue as she is brought back to life. The entire room is silent. We stare at the statue which is lit gently from behind. The aura surrounding Hermione is stunning. She wears a grey gown and stands on top of a platform and towers over the others. Peacock’s Paulina keeps a protective stance nearby in solidarity with Hermione. We wait. We continue waiting amongst the silence until slowly, ever so slightly, Hermione begins to move. I do not breathe throughout this entire scene. This is Hermione’s redemption so Abbey places all the emphasis on her. The silence and stillness of the scene remains until Perdita and Hermione are reunited as mother and daughter. No longer kept from each other due to patriarchal behaviour, the women are able to find redemption in each other. The women bring each other back to life. The final moments of the show take place between Leontes and Hermione. Rather than have Hermione taken offstage, Abbey has her remain on across from the man who wronged her. He extends his hand to her in hopes of reconciliation and the lights go down. Does she accept him? The audience is left to wonder whether the wounds of misogynistic control over women can truly be forgiven.

Groundling Theatre’s The Winter’s Tale confronts the harsh treatment of women in the play with patience as Abbey takes us slowly and carefully through every sequence of the story. Sexism creeps into every picturesque scene and shows how everywhere women are trapped by the walls imposed around them. Each section contains its own mood much like the women are contained by the restraints placed around them. Abbey’s staging of a problem play moves chapter by chapter and understands the subtle shifts in storytelling. The play remains grounded in the stories of women and the boundaries around them. It is the relationships between women in the play that ultimately heal the wounds. They find strength and salvation in each other. Even in the cold wasteland of patriarchy, women can transform themselves out of their prisons as objects into real, living, breathing humans.

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